Written by Rosalind Fournier
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Frank Stitt, owner and executive chef of Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega, Bottega Café and Chef Fonfon, has always been quick to credit his staff’s extraordinary talents in helping to make his restaurants into nationally recognized icons of culinary excellence.
Now, Dolester Miles—a onetime garde manger at Highlands when it first opened who moved up the ranks to pastry chef for all the restaurants—has received recognition from an even higher source. The venerable James Beard Foundation nominated Miles this year as a semifinalist in its coveted “Outstanding Pastry Chef” category. Highlands, meanwhile, was a semifinalist for the eight consecutive year for the award of “Outstanding Restaurant.”
This was Miles’ first nomination and first trip to the James Beard Awards ceremony, which has been called the “Oscars of the food world.” And just as an Academy Award nomination elevates the career of an actor to another plane, a James Beard nomination can also put a restaurant and its chefs on the map for years to come. “I did not expect this at all,” says Miles, who grew up in Bessemer and first learned to bake from her mother. “It was a complete surprise and such an honor to be recognized by the James Beard Foundation.”
Though she started out making salads and appetizers, Miles later branched out into desserts—pies, cheesecakes, chocolate torte and crème brulees. “Then when Frank opened Bottega in 1988, I approached him and asked if I could make desserts for both restaurants,” she remembers.
It was an easy call for Stitt, who saw something in Miles early on that made her seem like a natural fit for his vision for the restaurants. “Dol has a great heart and a wonderful soul,” Stitt says, “and that was obvious. She was someone who was interested, and she had a knack for cooking…making pleasurable food made her happy, she was a hard worker, and her smile filled the room.”
The two make a great team—the chef extraordinaire from Cullman, Ala. and the pastry chef from Bessemer, now both nationally recognized in their own rights as players on the national food stage. (Neither Highlands nor Miles walked away with their respective James Beard awards this year, but if history is any indication, one or both will be nominated again.) And to hear them describe their working relationship, you can understand why what happens in the kitchens of Stitt’s restaurants approaches something like pure magic:
“We have a great working relationship and have worked together for more than 30 years,” Miles says, “so I know what he likes and doesn’t like. We share ideas and collaborate well together.”
Frank elaborates: “For instance, I will say ‘Let’s emphasize these local citrus or whatever else is fresh and local,’ and suggest a triffle or semi-freddo, and Dol will run with that idea and come up with an almond crust shell with a satsuma-kumquat frozen mousse that is stunning in its purity, flavor and balance.
“One of the happiest parts of my day is that morning trek into the early morning kitchen, and Dol and the pastry team are working together to make some of America’s greatest desserts,” he adds. “Her pride and pursuit of excellence has been an inspiration to countless young cooks, and I could not be prouder of her well-deserved recognition.”